Hydrogen is the energy carrier of the future and is available in almost unlimited quantities. Unfortunately, however, 90% of the hydrogen produced worldwide still comes from fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gases (CO2). This is not good for the climate. Switzerland, Europe, China and other large industrialised countries, and under President Joe Biden now even the USA again, want to find a remedy. Switzerland and the EU have set themselves the goal of becoming “climate neutral” by 2050. There is still a long way to go, but promising beginnings have been made.

Anyone who wants to sustainably renew the energy balance, i.e., reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, cannot avoid hydrogen (H2) – it is three times more energetic than petrol. The substance is available in virtually unlimited quantities – unfortunately mostly only in bound form, such as water (H2O). This means that energy must be expended to produce pure hydrogen, i.e., to split the molecules. Depending on the production process, this again produces the undesirable greenhouse gas CO2.


Grey, blue, green

More than 90% of the hydrogen produced worldwide still comes from fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal. We speak of grey hydrogen because its production is associated with climate-damaging emissions (CO2). With blue hydrogen, which comes from natural gas, the CO2 produced is captured and must be stored somehow, underground.

H2 production is only really climate-friendly if it is carried out sustainably, i.e., with the help of renewable energy (electricity from solar energy, wind or waterpower) without releasing CO2. In this case, we speak of green hydrogen and it can play a central role in the energy transition, in industry, as fuel for vehicles (fuel cell drive) and – converted to methane and fed into natural gas pipeline networks – for heating and cooking. Hydrogen is therefore an ideal medium to “decarbonise” the energy market.

So far, the global production of green H2 is only in the initial stages. There is still a long way to go before mass production becomes widespread. But it is feasible and affordable, as the Hydrogen Council‘s latest study from January shows. The Council, founded in Davos in 2017 and based in Brussels, brings together more than 100 leading energy, transport, industry, and investment companies with the aim of promoting the hydrogen economy and helping fuel cell propulsion achieve a breakthrough on the road. The circle of supporters includes BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Air Liquide, Linde, Shell and Total.


“Net zero” by 2050

By now, most responsible politicians and energy managers worldwide have recognised the need for a sustainable reduction of CO2 emissions. The new US President Joe Biden renewed as one of his first official acts the membership of the USA in the Paris Climate Agreement, which his predecessor Donald Trump had just left on 4th November last year.

Switzerland and the EU have set ambitious targets for CO2 reduction. The aim is to be climate-neutral by 2050. The bottom line is that no more greenhouse gases are to be emitted (“net zero”).

Germany and France have announced billions in investments in hydrogen technology. If the EU Commission’s Green Deal has its way, Europe will become the first climate-neutral continent, not least thanks to renewable hydrogen. The EU is relying heavily on hydrogen to decarbonise industry, transport and heating. According to the strategy paper of July 2020, 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen are to be produced across the EU by 2030 and 40 gigawatts (GW) of electrolyser capacity made available for this purpose. The necessary investments are estimated at “24 to 42 billion euros”.

Switzerland was the first country in the world to introduce a new form of emission-free mobility at the national level: a “hydrogen ecosystem”. It focuses initially on heavy goods traffic. In addition to the Swiss H2 Mobility Association, the companies H2 EnergyHolding, Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility and Hydrospider are involved in the project.


Decarbonisation of heavy goods transport

According to the project operators, around 1600 fuel cell electric commercial vehicles from Hyundai are to be on Swiss roads by 2025. The first prototypes are already on the road. According to the private-sector initiative, “with the emission-free hydrogen cycle, it is making a significant contribution to the decarbonisation of heavy transport”. The green hydrogen will be produced in a climate-friendly way exclusively with electricity from renewable energies and will be offered at special H2 filling stations via the existing filling station network. The first H2 filling station in Switzerland went into operation in Hunzenschwil in 2016. There are now 6 filling stations. The aim is to establish a nationwide network.

At the beginning of October 2020, the first Xcient Fuel Cell Trucks from Hyundai were handed over to customers in Lucerne and have been running in practical tests since then. Members of the support association use these trucks in daily freight transport and ensure the establishment of a nationwide H2 refuelling infrastructure.

The greenhouse gas emissions of heavy goods traffic would be greatly reduced with the fuel cell drive, the association emphasises: With a mileage of around 80,000 km per year, a fuel cell truck saves 70 to 75 t of CO2 annually. This is because the fuel cell engine only emits water vapour. The fuel, i.e., hydrogen, is supplied by Hydrospider AG. Hydrospider’s first H2 production plant with a capacity of 2 megawatts (MW) went into operation at the Alpiq hydropower plant in Gösgen in spring 2020.


Swiss Energy Award 2021 as recognition

The water cycle project received the Swiss Energy Award Watt d’Or 2021 in the category “Energy-efficient mobility” from the Swiss Federal Office of Energy.

Conclusion: Hydrogen is indispensable for the future supply of climate-neutral energy – as a fuel and heating medium, but also as a storage medium. Hydrogen produced electrolytically with surplus solar power in summer can be stored and used to generate heat in winter. As a result of increasing demand, the production costs of green hydrogen will fall. The Hydrogen Council has presented calculations on cost degression under different scenarios. Green hydrogen will definitely become cheaper. Its competitiveness compared to conventional (fossil) energy carriers will increase strongly due to economies of scale. This facilitates the decarbonisation of the electricity industry and road transport.

The trend towards climate neutrality opens a variety of investment opportunities. “Energy companies and industrial technology companies will have opportunities in building and operating the new green hydrogen plants. Furthermore, hundreds of GW of new renewable energy capacity will be required to power the electrolysers. This has not yet been priced into market forecasts for suppliers to the wind and solar industries,” writes Simon Webber, Senior Portfolio Manager at Schroders. He sees the easiest business and investment opportunity in companies that can supply the market to manufacture the many new electrolysers. Sales of equipment for electrolysers were only around $250 million in 2020, he says. For decarbonisation, Webber expects a market of $25 billion “globally in peak demand years”. The fact that there are currently only a few leading electrolyser companies makes “this industry very interesting”. New entrants would have a hard time because the technology is not simple.

Manred Kröller
Financial journalist

The partners of the cross-sector hydrogen ecosystem in Switzerland

The Promotion Association H2 Mobility Switzerland was founded in 2018 by Agrola, AVIA Association, Coop, Coop Mineraloel, fenaco Cooperative, Migrol and the Migros Cooperative Federation “to promote hydrogen mobility in Switzerland and to establish a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations”. In the meantime, other members have joined: Camion Transport, Chr. Cavegn, Emil Frey Group, Emmi Switzerland, F. Murpf, Galliker, Gebrüder Weiss, G. Leclerc Transport, Schöni Transport, Shell New Fuels, Socar Energy Switzerland, Streck Transport, Tamoil and Von Bergen.

Founded in 2014, H2 Energy Holding describes itself as a “business innovator for renewable energies”. To stop climate change, hydrogen from renewable energy is to be made a cornerstone of the energy system.

Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility, Opfikon, is a joint venture between Hyundai and H2 Energy and offers zero-emission commercial vehicles powered by fuel cells.

Hydrospider is a joint venture between Alpiq, H2 Energy and Linde/PanGas and was founded in 2019. According to its own information, it ensures the generation, procurement and logistics of green hydrogen from CO2-free production. H2 Energy and Alpiq each hold 45% of the capital. The global industrial gases and plant engineering group Linde, which operates in Switzerland under the name PanGas, holds 10%.


Related links to the topic

How fuel cell propulsion works

The fuel of the fuel cell is gaseous hydrogen. During operation, it continuously reaches the anode from the outside (from the tank). At the same time, oxygen or air is supplied to the cathode as an oxidant. Since the hydrogen wants to react with the oxygen to form water on its own, no external energy is needed; therefore we speak of “cold combustion”. Electricity is generated and the “exhaust gas” is simple water vapour. There are already fuel cell vehicles with ranges of up to 700 km.

The fuel cell is a very efficient drive. Its electrical efficiency is over 60%. A petrol engine achieves only 25 to 35%. Overall, the total efficiency of a fuel cell vehicle today is already above that of a conventional passenger car, despite the energy required to produce the hydrogen needed.



This post was automatically translated.